Snake charmers had always mesmerized me. They’ll mesmerize any six years old. I liked it when the hypnotized creatures danced to the tune their vaguely-clad masters played on their flutes. But their scaly skins played a different tune altogether. In bright daylight, the scales would resemble a cluster of diamonds, shining, dancing and eventually forming a pattern more pleasing to the eyes than the flute’s voice was to the ears. During sunset, the orange rays of the sun would make the scales look much more sinister, like a group of talented spitfires determined to shock and end your day with a feeling of awe. But the eyes are what I always considered to be the jewels of these elegant reptiles. They would be fixed upon the one seducing them, never once leaving the snake charmer. One look at the eyes of the snake and you could bet on your life that the snake is just about to strike its master. But, it will always refrain from doing so. That has and always will remain a mystery to me. Perhaps I shall never know the reason as to why these untrained snakes never strike their masters. And why do the snake charmers seem so fearless? Aren’t they scared that they might die any second? Aren’t they aware of the fact that their lives cling to a thread?
But, I might be totally wrong. Perhaps these aren’t untrained animals after all. They might have been trained in some fashion to follow the flute’s movements. And perhaps the snake charmers are clever individuals who cut off the poisonous fangs of their “pets” so as to prevent early death. But, all this rational thinking is irrelevant to a six-year-old boy. All I cared about back then was the snake dancing to it's master’s tune. The snake charmers truly mesmerized me. Or perhaps it was the snakes. I can’t recollect correctly, for all this which I am about to tell you happened seven decades ago.
Seven decades ago, this country was in the hands of the Brits. They must be one of the wiliest humans to have ever walked this earth. When they arrived four hundred years ago, looking for a new nation to trade with, not a living soul would have given a second thought to their intentions. In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, they had conquered a nation that boasted of having a history that was thousands of years old and illuminated by the presence of great kings and warriors in every generation. Where were these kings and warriors when their motherland was forced to bend her knees to the Queen? Perhaps they were busy being devoured by the aliens’ gold and charisma and did not deem it important to defend their land. Or maybe they were busy just fighting one another over petty issues (they were loggerheads after all) and turned a blind eye towards the British schemes. In the blink of an aye, we were owned.
But, nowhere do I say that I disliked the foreigners. No. I pretty much liked their regime. And so did my villagers. I think this was largely due to the fact that the ‘Gora Sahib’ or the white officer who was in charge of our village loved our people and our culture. He would be seen roaming around the village, (most of the times flanked by his Indian wife) and addressing the villagers’ problems or inspecting the construction of the new school building. Personally, I knew him well. He had a good rapport with my father who was the village head. It was he who insisted that I should be one of the first students to attend the new school and complete my studies in England. And who wouldn’t want to? He had shown me the photographs of London and I was simply flabbergasted. The tall buildings, beautiful bridges and elegant machines are known as cars that roamed the streets! Who wouldn’t want to live in a land like this? Probably Rangapa, the village idiot. He once told me that a man by the name of Gandhi is leading a mass movement to shoo the Brits away. Ever since that day, I considered him to be an idiot, for who would want to force such wonderful people to leave the country? Everybody in my village loved them, and the ‘Gora Sahib’ loved us back.
It was he who organized the first carnival in our village, with the agenda to generate mutual understanding among the two races. He wanted most of the villagers to meet the English culture. At the same time, he also wanted some of his new white-skinned recruits to witness the vivacious nature of the Indian side as well, for the carnival was supposed to showcase a blend of both cultures. Hence, the carnival possessed a diversity that outshined India’s. Each side was determined to bring out their best. Various exhibitions and performances were to take place for two days, concluding with the first motion picture to be ever played in the village.
It was on the first night of the carnival that I was admiring the snake charmer and his pet, all the while holding my elder brother’s hand. My father had permitted me to attend the carnival after I promised to always stay with my elder brother and not wander off; a promise which I knew would last only for 10 minutes after we entered the carnival. Just as I had expected, my brother’s friends came over and he left with them, bribing me with a few annas and convincing me that there will be 3 mangoes waiting for me once we reach home. So it was just me, exploring a vivid world.
Just when I thought nothing would grab my attention as the snake and its master did, I saw a man walking on fire! It pained me more to see him accomplish this daring task than it did to him. The cheers and the ‘hurrahs’ that greeted him once he crossed the pool of embers was deafening. After the mentally tiring task of averting my eyes from him, I saw for the first time what an English royal family looked like. For in front of my eyes, there was a fifteen feet oil canvas of the Queen with her family. They were very different from our rajas and ranis. For the first time, I laid my eyes upon a clown, a man with extremely long legs and Indian and British women dancing side by side. The whole night was like a delicious feast for my eyes, with lots of varieties and tastes.
Then, out of nowhere, a huge explosion close by made me jump. Instinctively, I scrambled to get away from the source of the explosion and ran into a wall, which said, “Ouch!”
It took me a moment to realize that what I had mistaken for a wall, in fact, turned out to be a man.
A mountain of a man!
When I began to apologize, he grabbed me by the collar of my kurta and lifted me over his head (single-handedly). Through his grinding teeth, he said, “Watch where you’re going you filthy vermin. Next time I see you, I’ll send you back to you’re mother, crippled.” And the best reply I gave to this humungous brute was a teary-eyed whimper. Satisfied that he had gotten through to me and bashed me up mentally, he let me go. Now, this was a seven feet drop, mind you, and landing on them made my buttocks burn for a whole day. I twisted my neck to take one last look at this man and saw him bend over and pick something up. Probably something he had dropped when I ran into him. I wouldn’t have bothered anymore if I hadn’t seen it shine. The thing that he picked up was shiny. A second later I realized it was silver.
Shiny, silvery and sharp.
Now if any sane person came across such a monster, who threatens you with the very first words that come out of his mouth, you will never want to meet him again. You will make sure that you immediately take off in the opposite direction.
But I challenge you to bring a six-year-old lad in front of me who can be considered sane. I guarantee that he shall not know that a word called danger exists.
So, me, being a not-so-sane six-year-old boy, oblivious to any danger and enthralled by my encounter with this powerful being, scampered behind him, eager to find out more.
I saw what caused the explosion was the firing up of an automobile. A foreigner dressed fully in black was shouting in fluent Hindi to all the curious villagers gathered around his machine, explaining what this machine did.
It wasn’t difficult to lose sight of Mr. Big, as he was over seven feet tall and his head was always above the other heads. Also, every now and then I could see his dagger shine in the firelight, tucked behind his trousers. I was trailing him like a cat, moving exactly as he did and keeping a safe distance. Although, in this case, the prey was three times larger than the cat. I followed him to a huge tent. He had to bend to almost half his size to enter it. As I neared the mouth of the tent, I could hear raised voices inside. A bunch of men arguing amongst themselves. As I laid my hands on the veil, I realized that it was a bunch of men arguing with one man. I peered inside with one eye. I was right. It was one man versus seven or eight men. The lone warrior was facing away from me, shouting at my prey, the seven-foot brute. The man had to look skywards to make eye contact with the brute, who seemed to be the leader of the pack. And suddenly, the brute lunged at the man, just like a lion lunges at a deer from its hiding place.
The brute was the first to produce his dagger amongst his team, and nothing prepared me for what came next. The brute forced his weapon right into the helpless man’s belly. When he pulled it out the blood gushed out of him, as the water gushes out of a pipe. The next few seconds were a blur to me, as my world started spinning. When I came to my senses, I saw that the poor man was now in the hands of a totally different person, still being stabbed religiously, and the other seven sinners were standing aside, all of their daggers bloody, with a look of contempt occupying their faces. This was all that I could take. I knew that if I did not let it out, I would die too.
So I screamed.
Every head in the room turned to look at me in unison, including that of the victim. The look on his face was that of shock and the wrinkles on his forehead showed that he was confused and still incredulous that his life had ended in such a horrific manner.
The brute took a step towards me, the red dagger in hand. I do still do not believe how I managed to move my legs, for every muscle in my body was frozen. It felt like my feet were running on their own accord. And everywhere I looked, I saw signs of death. The clown and the long-legged man did not seem so entertaining anymore; instead, they seemed to be reaching out for me, with murderous rage in their eyes. The portrait of the royal family looked frightening to me now and the firewalker had now turned into a rakshasa and the snake that I had once deemed to be elegant, was now a terrifying beast with blood-red eyes, being ordered by its master to attack me.
How I made it to my father’s tent, I do not know. I ran towards him, ultimately falling into his lap and crying my lungs out, trembling with fear. After what seemed to age, my father gently lifted my chin and asked me what was it that had scared me so much. And I told him. I told him about the brute, his warning, his dagger, our cat and mouse chase, him and his men arguing with the poor man and finally his ultimate fate. My father listened to me all the while, not once interrupting and never smiling. This told me that he believed every word that I had told him. Finally, breathless, I gave a sigh of relief and lowered my head onto his lap.
“I think your son is telling the truth, my friend.” a familiar voice said, in accented Hindi.
I turned around to see the ‘Gora Sahib’, his right hand holding his pistol, and with his left, extinguishing his cigar.
“Yes and so do I”, my father replied.
And within a minute, my father and ‘Gora Sahib’ gathered twenty or so men, including the idiot Rangapa, armed with sticks and a few rifles, and set off in the direction of the tent, with me in the lead.
Upon our arrival at the scene of the crime, my father told me to wait outside and he entered the tent with ‘Gora Sahib’ and his army. At first, I could hear a commotion inside, and the ‘Gora Sahib’s voice rang out, louder than the bullet he had fired into the air just moments ago. And then total silence.
I heard my father call out Rangapa’s name and the next moment the fool was outside, walking towards me, his face blank. He knelt down, looked into my eyes and smiled. And to this day, his words still ring in my ears.
“Little One, you just saw a rehearsal of Julius Caesar being stabbed by his court men”.